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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: J.T. Realmuto

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Does Gary Sánchez’s return make this possibility moot? Let’s take a look.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Yankees made the decision on Wednesday to keep Gary Sánchez rather than non-tender him and send him off to free agency. The move, which was made on Sanchez’s 28th birthday, suggests that the franchise has not given up on the once superstar catcher who has struggled mightily since late 2019, and believe he could return to the player he was in 2016, 2017 and a good chunk of 2019.

So, does Sánchez’s return take the Bombers out of the running for one of the top free agents on the market in J.T. Realmuto? Probably, but if the Yanks decided to make that splash, they would be requiring the best backstop in baseball.

Realmuto, just a few months away from his age-30 season, has posted an OPS of at least .820 in each of the past three seasons, earning All-Star selections in 2018 and 2019 (Sánchez was an All-Star in 2019 as well, but in 2018, not so much). Sánchez was actually more valuable at the plate in 2019 (his OPS+ of 118 eclipsed Realmuto’s 109), but the same can’t be said for the 2020 shortened season, when Sanchez labored with a 69 OPS+ compared to Realmuto’s 123.

Realmuto also ranked in the 95th percentile in pitch framing this past season, per Statcast, His bat, which boasts a career wRC+ of 114, well above the league average for catchers, is a bonus to his defensive skills. Not only is Realmuto a superb pitch framer, but his caught stealing rate since 2018 sits above 41 percent, the best in baseball. For context, Sanchez, who has a great arm as well, posted a caught stealing rate of 23 percent in 2019, and his best single-season mark during a full year was his 38 percent rate in 2017.

There is also the matter of Realmuto’s speed, which for a catcher, is another incredible bonus. Realmuto’s sprint speed ranks in the 84th percentile among all players, not just catchers, while we know Sánchez isn’t known for his speed. In fact, Eno Sarris and Lindsey Adler of The Athletic recently dove into how Sánchez’s lack of speed affects defensive positioning, and in turn, his offensive numbers. Realmuto doesn’t have that concern. He hits the ball hard, and given his plus speed, defenses can’t give themselves extra time to turn potential hits into outs. The result: an all-around star catcher that will command a massive contract, even as he approaches 30-years-old.

Data courtesy of Statcast

Realmuto’s speed, defense and steady bat have resulted in at least 3.5 WAR in each of his past three full seasons, so the value clearly warrants a big contract. Sánchez has shown he can be one of the most valuable catchers in the league as well, posting a three-win season as recently as 2019, but there’s obviously a much lower floor with the Yankees’ incumbent starter.

So, the big question for the Yankees: does bringing back Sánchez take them out of the Realmuto sweepstakes? Would they have even put themselves in the running if Sanchez didn’t return? MLB Trade Rumors predicts a five-year, $125 million deal for Realmuto. It would be hard to imagine the Yankees pull the trigger on since Sánchez is back, and they must have some belief that he can return to his 2019 form. Expressing that belief just to push him into a backup role after making a massive free agent splash for another catcher doesn’t seem likely, but the Yankees could explore trade options for Sánchez if they wanted to lock up the best catcher in the game moving forward.

Realmuto is arguably the biggest free agent on the market, and unquestionably the most valuable catcher in the league. But the Yankees were right to bring back Sánchez, who has also brought value to a position that often brings minimal offensive help. Tendering Sanchez a contract means the franchise isn’t quite ready to give up on him just yet, which would suggest Realmuto is not coming to the Bronx. If he somehow wound up with the Yanks, they’d own the best backstop in baseball to form a battery with one of the best starting pitchers in the league in Gerrit Cole.